Late last week, workers at Nissan's plant in Canton, Miss. rejected union membership by a nearly 30-point margin. The vote had been closely watched because it represented the latest effort by the United Auto Workers union to expand its member base beyond the Midwestern states where it has traditionally been strong, into Southern states where unions are weak and unionism is something of an oddity.
No one could have planned this in advance, but the vote came at an extremely inconvenient moment for the union. The same week workers were making up their minds, federal prosecutors announced charges that a former UAW vice president (now deceased) and Chrysler's head of labor relations had been skimming money from the union.
The wrongdoing itself is bad enough, but the two men in question were the top negotiators for their respective sides when it came to the terms of union members' employment at Chrysler. How did their alleged criminal conspiracy affect negotiations? Can Chrysler UAW workers feel confident that they were being represented well?
Meanwhile, Nissan itself worked hard to encourage a "no" vote, and that had to make a big difference. When the UAW came up just short in a 2014 unionization election at a Volkswagen production facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., the company had actually welcomed and encouraged the union.
Still, you need to look back to Henry Ford and his preemptive anti-union actions in the 1910s to understand why most workers choose not to unionize. Ford managed to avoid the unionization of his company right up into the 1940s because he paid his workers high wages, set eight-hour shifts at a time when a 10 or 12-hour workday was more common and gave workers Saturday off at a time when that wasn't common either.
If workers are already being taken care of and treated with respect, they tend not to see the point of a union. The New York Times described the compensation package at the Canton plant and quotes one worker who is coming from just that perspective:
Veteran workers at the plant make about $26 per hour, typically only a few dollars less than veteran workers represented by the union at the major American automakers, and well above the median wage in Mississippi. Nissan also pays a roughly similar percentage of employees' incomes into their retirement accounts as do the Michigan automakers.
Before coming to Nissan more than 14 years ago, "I didn't have a 401(k), I had one week of vacation," said Marvin Cooke, a Nissan paint technician who was previously an assistant manager at a Shoney's restaurant. "Now, I have four weeks' vacation. I'm off on every holiday. Nissan has provided a great living for me."
Employers who are really interested in avoiding the hassles of monopoly collective bargaining, extreme adversarial labor relations, strikes, and violence, always have a decent, humane path to that end.